How to sum up the life of Ronald Wilson Reagan, lifeguard, actor, labor union president, television personality, governor, columnist, lecturer, president? His long goodbye, as his memory dimmed through the tragic impact of Alzheimer’s disease, cannot obscure his role as one of America’s greatest, and most optimistic, advocates of freedom.
As the new millennium unfolds, with capitalism ascendant, communism defunct, and liberalism discredited, we easily forget the world 40 years ago when Reagan entered politics. Free enterprise seemed to be operating on borrowed time, “saved” only by former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The Soviet Union was supposedly making giant economic strides; newly independent states were choosing autarchic collectivism. Communism soon swallowed much of Southeast Asia, despite the sacrifice of more than 50,000 U.S. lives.
America’s political agenda was set by the left. New regulations and bureaucracies multiplied even when Republicans held office. Reagan’s sparkling speech on behalf of 1964 GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was overshadowed by the latter’s overwhelming defeat by Lyndon Baines Johnson, architect of the “great society.”
Who could be optimistic in such a world? Ronald Wilson Reagan.
In 1966 he ran for California governor, upending the Democratic incumbent in a massive upset. His 1968 presidential campaign was abortive, but he easily won re-election in as California governor in 1970. In 1976 came the narrow, heartbreaking loss in the Republican convention to incumbent Gerald R. Ford, who went on to be defeated by Jimmy Carter.
The world further darkened. President Carter disclaimed any responsibility, spoke of malaise and warned of tougher times.
Again, Reagan challenged the odds, which seemed long when I signed onto his campaign, just out of law school, on Aug. 1, 1979. Yet Reagan won in a landslide, confounding critics horrified by the candidacy of a supposedly ignorant cowboy.
President Reagan’s policy achievements were vitally important, but ultimately mixed. Still, Reagan infused Americans with his optimistic outlook while confronting America’s, and freedom’s, enemies abroad. He unashamedly extolled the virtues of liberty.
He reminded Americans that they had always achieved the seeming impossible. He called the Soviet Union what it was, an evil empire. He challenged then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to make good on the latter’s professed humanitarian vision by banning nuclear weapons and tearing down the Berlin Wall.
Reagan’s vision, so often derided as simplistic, became reality. The United States dominates the world.
Where but the United States do other peoples look for leadership?
Communism - the Soviet Union, its ragged gaggle of conscript allies, and flood of Third World impersonators - has disappeared into history’s dustbin.
The Berlin Wall, perhaps the most dramatic symbol of totalitarian oppression, is gone. The United States and Russia have reduced their nuclear arsenals and the Bush administration is preparing to deploy missile defenses.
We are truly living in Reagan’s world. The challenges facing the United States are immense. But few doubt that we will meet those challenges.
The world fusses about U.S. arrogance and hegemony. But no other state combines such ambition, commitment, competence, energy and optimism.
The 21st century is beginning like the last one ended, as the American century. The United States remains the shining city on the hill.
Moreover, America’s prime animating force comes from private people in private industry and private charity. The 20th century was, in historian Paul Johnson’s words, the age of politics.
The politicians used their opportunity to inflict mass poverty, oppression and murder. There has been no more disastrous social experiment in history.
Now inventors and doctors, businessmen and engineers, clerics and hackers, and artists and philanthropists are getting their turn. They are developing new medicines, finding new sources of energy, inventing new processes to protect the environment, and creating new ways to communicate.
Our technological vistas have never seemed wider. The 21st century looks to be the age of entrepreneurship, when civil society regains its dominance over the politicians.
Get out of people’s way, Reagan long demanded of government. When it refuses to do so, people now push it out of the way.
Of course, there is more than the material to life, and Reagan worried about the larger moral environment within which we live. But he understood that virtue was not possible without freedom.
How to remember Ronald Wilson Reagan? He was friendly and engaging, warm and concerned about even young staffers such as myself.
He was bright, focused on the big picture rather than policy minutiae. He was passionate about achieving a free society, and convinced that a free society was the best way to achieve a just and prosperous one as well.
Finally, he was an optimist. He believed in himself and America. And the ability of a free people to work together to better themselves and those around them.
Ronald Wilson Reagan died without knowing how right he had been. We know.